Wednesday, October 27, 2010

19.10.10 – happy birthday clara!

we’re in our eleventh week in Софіївка / Sofievka. it seems like so many years.
I’ve passed the time, for the most part, trapped in the fear of my early
childhood – my fear of anger and conflict. during my forth decade I worked to
liberate myself from this fear – a work I consider one the most important of my
life, but I obviously missed something. perhaps this is my reason for being here
– to finish the work, to put to rest my fear of anger and conflict.

the week we arrived, 9.8.10, they arrived also the sister of Valentina’s father
with her daughter, son-in-law, and grandchild. during most of that week there
were also Valentina’s sister, Татяпа/ Tatyana, with her husband and daughter.
the tension grew between Valentina (and me by proximity) on one side and all the
rest on the other. it reached a peak at the end of the second week when
Valentina and I were on our way to plant a tree by her father’s grave. Татяпаwas
here that day. she and her mother were adamantly against us planting the tree.
they began yelling and screaming that we must abandon the idea. I had been calm
and quiet to that point but finally lost my temper and asked if Valentina’s
father, Victor was undeserving of a real tree but only plastic flowers? (I’m
known for my quiet, gentle nature but when a situation becomes volatile I’m
capable of saying very hurtful words. perhaps the contrast makes the pain even
more dramatic.) Valentina translated and for that she received the slap in the
face meant for me. we left to plant the walnut tree and returned to hear that we
had a week to pack our things and leave. I was ready to leave and willing to
sleep the winter in a ditch only to be free of the tension, anger, contempt and
bitter arguing.

the next day I looked at the situation outside the light of my own fear and
discomfort and decided to make an attempt at peace for the sake of us parting on
somewhat decent terms. I asked Valentina’s mother to allow me a few words
(translated of course by Valentina). I first apologized for my cruel words. I
then went on to acknowledge the hard work she does here day after day and the
loneliness she must feel since her husband’s death almost two years ago. I told
her that our intention for coming here had been to help her with her work and to
do what we could to make her home more functional and comfortable. I told her
the story of the troubled relationship I had with my father, the ten years I
worked to resolve that relationship, the resulting healthy report we had in the
final years of his life and the value this has in my life. I finished by saying
that when a pattern of interaction is established, in their case for almost
forty years, it becomes extremely difficult to change. it necessitates a strong
willingness from both sides. having set a tone of harmony and trust, I left the
two of them to talk.

being the middle child of five I often assume the role of mediator and often
this role is chosen not by me but by a pair of people in conflict over their
opposing points of view. I feel pressure from each of them to choose alliance
and prove the other at fault. this is not the case in my mediation between
Valentina and her mother. my function is clearly that of an objective third
party outside the realm of their history of disaccord.

after they had talked for an hour or two Valentina told me that her mother
wanted us to stay and offered a wardrobe for our clothes and a space for us to
sleep (to this point, by choice, we had been sleeping outside). that moment for
me was great victory. the work I’ve done for ‘peace’; anti-war protests, letters
and visits to senators and congressmen, all pales aside this first big step
toward the peace between a mother and daughter. I was elated and inspired to
actively purse this work in the future.

as one may predict, the peace was short-lived. as we began to organize our
belongings in the space allotted, the change was too much for Любовь/ Lubov. she
became furious saying that it no longer seeded like her home. again she said
we’d have to leave.
after a few hours of cool-down I asked her what things bothered her the most.
she responded, our photographs and the fact that we chose to sleep on the floor
like ‘gypsies’. I removed the fotos and bedding from the floor and she consented
to give it another try.

several unhealthy weeks passed with attempts, at times successful at times not,
to dodge Lubov’s irascibility. I reverted to the emotional state of an
eight-year-old. trying to make myself invisible I looked for work in protected
spaces - the well, attics, roof tops, root cellar. the well was my favorite.
it’s not actually a well but an underground storage tank for water - a home-made
concrete cylinder two and a half meters deep and a meter and a half in diameter.
the entrance is a standard manhole. it first had to be cleaned (Valentina
insisted taking that job), the cracks patched, then entirely coated with a thin
layer of cement applied with a brush. the acoustic is particular and, using my
voice and the cement bucket, I enjoyed finding the resonant frequencies and
playing with them. it was the ultimate protection from the negativity permeating
the above ground environment thus allowing me a few hours to ‘ground’ myself a

it was during this tense period that Lubov appeared in a dream. the setting was
a small gathering of people in the kitchen (the ‘house’ functions by way of two
separate buildings – the larger one consists of three bedrooms around a small
living space with a coal stove, the other includes the kitchen, a former stable
now storage shed and a chicken coop). there was music playing and Lubov asked me
to dance. I felt awkward and said I wanted to dance instead with Valentina.
Lubov was offended and became angry.

15 October was the opening of our photography show at the Каховка/ Kahovka
museum. there are sixteen 20cm X 30cm framed prints and forty-nine 18cm X 24cm
prints attached with clothes-pins to two pieces of hemp twine stretched
diagonally on one wall. following the philosophy of making the trip from
Siracusa, Sicilia to Софіївка, Ukraine on a vintage ‘70’s bicycle salvaged from
the trash with travel bags constructed from a canvas bag given to me by my
mother in 1969 together with two trashed suitcases, I printed the photographs
for this exhibit on paper expired in the ‘80’s, with a poorly equipped enlarger
in a damp root cellar where dust and pieces of dirt fall continually – all a
nightmare for a photographer. instead of concerning myself with the problems I
embraced the limitations with an attitude of curiosity – ‘lets see what
happens’. the result wasn’t a big surprise – prints with little contrast,
irregular consistency and filled with dust spots. rather than being embarrassed
for the ‘non-professional quality’ of the prints, I find pleasure in having done
an unique work (it’s not possible to print copies with the same imperfections)
using obsolete equipment and materials (thus considered useless), in an
environment poorly suited as a darkroom. the prints look like photographs that
were stored in a corner of that same root cellar for fifty years. there’s a
certain fascination within these imperfections and through the imperfections you
discern the true spirit of each image.

in addition to prints, the opening was to consist of a slide show and discussion
of our trip. the curator had agreed to ‘light-proof’ the room and hang a screen
for the projections, however, she did neither. we came to know this on the day
of the opening without the time or materials to remedy the problems ourselves.
fortunately the curator had read the newspaper article and prepare an
introduction and some good questions for our presentation. not having done any
publicity for the event i expected three or four people to arrive -instead there
were thirty or forty. it was a different presentation than we had planned but it
went very well the same.

two days later Valentina’a mother, Lubov invited a couple of her friends for
lunch - one accompanied by her brother the ‘designated driver’. with the high
vodka consumption here i didn’t think the DD concept existed but the man said
his son is a highway patrol officer so he has to be on his best behavior. at the
lunch, in addition to Lubov and her three friends, there were Valentina’s
sister, Tatyana with her daughter, Veronika, the neighbor, Katerina (whom I
wrote about last time – she’s the mother of Valentina’s friend Roman, she sings
and plays accordion) and the other neighbor, Shura who is well into her 70’s and
a widow for over 30 years. Valentina does not tolerate well a party of vodka
drinkers so she didn’t want to participate in the lunch party. with difficulty i
convinced her to join the table for the sake of cultivating the peace between
she and her mother. a lot of vodka did in fact go down that afternoon. excluding
of Valentina, me and the DD who drank only tea, the group consumed five liters –
almost a liter per person. they asked me to sing and play guitar which i did.
then Katerina and i played the piece i wrote during the trip and she continued
to play and sing traditional Ukrainian songs with others joining in from time to
time. at a certain point Lubov stood up, said, ‘Liam!’, raised her right hand
with the other on her hip poised for a dance. unlike my dream i did not refuse
her. being an ungifted dancer i did what i could to follow along for a turn or
two in the kitchen. she later said that it was her first time to dance since her
husband’s death and shed some tears.

the days following our presentation at the museum and the five liter vodka lunch
have been lighter – less tension, less conflict. the three of us have begun to
eat lunch together almost every day. Lubov has begun to converse with Valentina
in a calm, respectable manner. she recounts to us stories of the past – when her
husband Victor was alive, when the children were small. there occasionally
arises criticism, conflict, anger but it seems less intense and finds resolution
more quickly. she doesn’t understand why we read, write, make photographs,
travel by bicycle, decorate the house, follow a vegetarian diet, don’t drink
vodka, sleep on the floor. it all seem to her useless, strange and sometime
exasperating. yet little by little she seems to tolerate our odd behavior.
little by little i let go of the eight-year old boy hiding from his father’s
irascibility. we have yet to endure the long and bitter Ukrainian winter.

with love and peace, Liam and Valentina


  1. Miss you so much! Thank you for this epic tale, so personally explored. You are doing some amazing work. Love you, PD

  2. Glad you two have each other. Remember there's always a place for you here in Louisville! It's not glamorous, but would suit. Thanks for sharing your stories. would love to see pics from the newspaper article or exhibit. much love, shannon (of shannon & charles)

  3. This one made me tear up a little bit- at the dancing part. You really know how to tell a story!